Tony Hayward: Lessons in Leadership and Accountability

After a three month ordeal that resulted in eleven deaths, an environmental catastrophe, countless small businesses closing, and a string of comments that came across to many observers as clueless or heartless, Tony Hayward is officially on his way out as BP’s CEO.

Few of us would have ever heard of Hayward had the Deepwater Horizon rig had not exploded in April, gushing thousands of barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, placing Hayward uncomfortably into the crosshairs of cable television news coverage.  An overview of his background suggests that he is a competent manager and talented problem solver—but not prepared for the intense media criticism that festered the last few months because of BP’s largest crisis to date.  In fairness, Hayward’s credentials are impressive: he has a PhD in geology; many firms recruited him after his doctorate, but he decided on BP, where he started as a rig geologist off the shore of Aberdeen; and held many leadership roles as his career took him to France, Canada, Papua New Guinea, China, Venezuela, and now Russia.

It is hard to believe that when he took the helm as BP’s CEO in 2007, one of Hayward’s first public comments was as follows, describing the aftermath of the death of a worker on an operation he was managing in Venezuela:

I went to the funeral to pay my respects.  At the end of the service his mother came up and beat me on the chest. ‘Why did you let it happen?’ she asked.  It changed the way I think about safety.  Leaders must make the safety of all who work for them their top priority.

How quickly the tone changed three years later.  If we were to follow Hayward, some lessons we would learn include:

  • Deny the obvious. Whether it was downplaying the effects of the oil spill, minimizing BP’s poor safety record, or telling Congress that he was not in the loop while decisions in the Gulf of Mexico evolved, Hayward came across as pushing off the responsibility that came with his position—to the point that even the British press, which first supported BP, turned against Hayward and his company.
  • Yet make yourself the center of attention. We never had the sense the BP’s effort to plug the well was a team effort—Hayward was always in front of the cameras, but not his team, even when it became clear that he was the wrong face for the wrong crisis.  Of course, his comment about “wanting his life back” was the ultimate gaffe, making him look self-absorbed and even bored with the fiasco.  By the way, where was the mention of the 11 oil rig workers who lost their lives?
  • Pass the buck. Make comments that Gulf residents are litigious and suggest that they would falsify claims.  Blame partners.  And while the criticism increases, spend a day yachting.

Whatever your opinion of the oil industry may be, the truth is that BP recruited thousands of employees to work on the gulf spill around the clock.  You can discuss the motives, the amount of money spent, and the timing and sincerity of BP’s television advertisements stating that it was doing everything it could to account of the Gulf spill.  But perception often trumps reality, and Hayward’s missteps will prove to be a case study of what not to do—and are especially glaring after a decade during which BP spent vast sums of cash trying to prove that it was a model of corporate social responsibility.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).